Under what conditions is the United States government prepared to meet with North Korea to discuss its nuclear program? Back in late August, Washington brushed off Pyongyang’s expressions of willingness to return to the Six-Party Talks. The North Koreans lately have gone further, affirming through the Foreign Ministry (via KCNA) that they are prepared to implement the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement that had (re)committed them to denuclearization. The response so far from Washington: a stony silence.

While the South Korean and Chinese press picked up on the signal, it doesn’t appear that the American media has done so. No questions about it seem to have been directed to the State Department or White House press secretaries, and I’ve yet to come across any published reports that mention it.

So what does the Administration want? Past statements indicate that it wants to see actual implementation of the  September 2005 Joint Statement before it will return to the table.  The most detailed statement was given by the State Department’s Philip Crowley in a September 1 press briefing:

[T]here are specific obligations that North Korea has agreed to in the past. Just making public statements of a willingness to come back to a negotiation is not enough. There are specific steps under the 2005 joint statement that North Korea can take to demonstrate that it is, in fact, committed to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. We are prepared to engage North Korea as part of this process, but in light of the sinking of the Cheonan and other provocative steps that North Korea has taken in recent months, including nuclear tests, including missile firings, we want to see a fundamental change in North Korea’s behavior. And as it demonstrates that it’s prepared to engage the United States and other countries constructively, we will be prepared to respond.

Pressed to be more specific about what steps North Korea should take, Crowley declined to do so:

I don’t have a laundry list. We are prepared to engage North Korea. We want to see an advance from the situation that we are currently in. But it is up to North Korea first and foremost to demonstrate, not just by words but by actions, that it’s prepared to follow a more constructive path. As North Korea demonstrates to us that it’s prepared to engage constructively, then we will evaluate those actions and, after consultations with other countries, be prepared to respond.

Actions, But Which Actions?

The only problem is, the September 2005 Joint Statement consists more of sweeping affirmations of intent than specific steps. But the action plan of February 13, 2007 (“Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement”) does contain, among other things, this commitment:

The DPRK will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment the Yongbyon nuclear facility, including the reprocessing facility and invite back IAEA personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications as agreed between IAEA and the DPRK.

Inviting the IAEA back to verify the shutdown of Yongbyon is the one item on the list that could be performed unilaterally. Is this what Washington expects? We don’t know. In an October 20 press briefing, Crowley declined to say:

We continue our broad consultations with other countries in the Six-Party process and I recognize that across the board different countries are going to have their own views on what it will take for the Six-Party Talks to resume. We have our own views and we are sharing those with the other governments.

Readers could be forgiven for wondering if the Administration actually has decided what steps it would consider sufficient for a return to negotiations.